“People have frequently complained about the manner in which death interrupts life.” ~Tolstoy
I read The Death of Ivan Illyich not only because it is the work of brilliant Leo Tolstoy, a genius whose every prose cuts through my heart, but also because Dr. Wayne Dyer once said that reading this book at 19 completely changed his thinking. As if that were not enough, I fondly remember how my mom read this book as part of an English class assignment in college; she went to college at the same time as me (I was so proud of her, by the way), and Tolstoy even had my mom talking about this book to her family!
This is a short novel that first of all gives you just enough taste of Tolstoy to make you hungry for his real masterpieces like Anna Karenina, one of my favorite books and War & Peace, on my reading list, and second of all, it talks openly about a subject socially avoided at all costs, the faith of all of us mortal beings one day, death.
The Introduction by Ronald Blythe is a must-read. It is sad to learn about the inner turmoil and conflict that Tolstoy himself had around death, and the precious time of his life he wasted obsessively worried about something that we humans can neither fathom nor explain. Tolstoy himself was the opposite of his main character, Ivan Illyich, in that the latter never wasted any time thinking about an inconvenience such as death until it were upon him, and yet both men were terrified of it to no end.
Ivan Illyich is anything but likable – it’s not his terrible flaws as much as his lack of all good and decent human traits. In a way, he is disturbingly neutral, neither negative nor positive and therefore, not terribly likable. But you don’t exactly read Tolstoy for his warm and fuzzy characters. You read him for the way he describes the depth and breadth of human experience, and it may be the same reason you might want to avoid Tolstoy altogether because he pulls you in deep and hard and makes you think about his message long after you have closed the last page of the book!
So whatever happens to Ivan Illyich that makes this 128-page book such a timeless classic (and if you are not reading the classics, you are missing out, baby!)?
Even Tolstoy, with his fear and agony about death, comes to the realization that death is simply a part of life and so it is preposterous that we as intelligent human beings shudder to think and ponder our own death as we do all other aspects of life.
We simply refuse to think – really and truly think – about our own mortality. Even if we study the subject of death, it is a subject of study and no more. And when death happens to someone else, we go through the usual motions of grief and sympathy but ultimately, we are relieved that it was someone else and not us facing that eventual end.
The story is compelling in its own right, whether you want to focus on the life lesson or just read a good book. I warn you, it is particularly hard to put it down after the quiet and proper life of Ivan Illyich gets interrupted with an imperceptible pain on his side that first nags at him and then grows so large that it is all he can think about. As the pain grows, Ivan Illyich grows impatient with himself and becomes disconnected from society. His whole life turns into a series of battles: Him versus the pain, him versus the doctors, him versus the wife and the colleagues, and him versus It – It being this impending death that no one talks about but everyone fully expects of him.
The ultimate highlight of the book is when Ivan Illyich hears an audible voice of his soul talking back to him in response to his incessant questioning of why this is happening to him. He questions why he has to die and the voice says what do you want and he answers that he wants to live and the voice asks, live how? And that’s when it happens.
The thought occurs to him that perhaps he had not lived his life as he should have.
“But if only I could understand the reason for this agony. Yet even that is impossible. It would make sense if one could say I had not lived as I should have. But such an admission is impossible, he uttered inwardly, remembering how his life had conformed to all the laws, rules and proprieties.”
The thought was so disturbing, so crazy, so heavy that at first, he denied it altogether but soon, he gave in and that’s when the real agony set in.
“But if that is the case, and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters – what then?”
And that, my dear constant reader, is the question we will all have to answer at the end of our own precious life – yes, yours and mine too will come to an end someday and there is no coming back to this point in time to relive, re-do and have a second chance.
Tolstoy may have written “The Death of Ivan Illyich” to help us better cope with our own eventual death, but for me, this book was a wake-up call to embrace life even more fiercely than before, and to live for what really and truly matters and that we define in our own ways.
I’d like to close with this powerfully moving quote that the son of Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee, had selected for a wedding he never had because of being fatally shot in a movie scene at the mere age of 28.
“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”
How do you define the real thing? How do you live a life that leaves no room for regrets? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
“If we have been pleased with life, then we should not be displeased with death since it comes from the hand of the same master.” ~Michelangelo
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